I recently teased my friend’s daughter, almost outraging her, about freezing time so that she can’t grow older than 14 years. She is reaching for everything that comes after this year. High school. Summer jobs. Learner’s permit. Driver’s license. Voting. Graduation. And everything beyond that.
This young lady is the same age that my youngest child Jessie would be, if she’d continued to grow up.
Isn’t it provocative, to consider what you’d do if you could slow, stop or reverse time? It’s certainly been the subject of many stirring and playful plots by authors and screenwriters over the centuries. It could be a thriller or a life lesson, depending on whether you’re Steven Spielberg, Frank Capra, Audrey Niffenegger or H.G. Wells.
At some points in life, we’re in such a rush. We want what comes next. Just like 14-year-olds. As children or teens, we’re looking ahead. Counting down. Or counting up, depending on your point of view. Striving toward the goal of being a grownup. Yearning for what seems so enticing.
Yet ask almost any recent high school grad. Wouldn’t they sometimes prefer to relinquish the pressures and responsibilities piling up on top of them, and just be a kid again? With only a child’s concerns? They’re staring adulthood in the face, feeling it shifting their frame of reference, altering their sense of the value of free time and work time, play and respite, labor and effort, privacy and intimacy and friendship and social liberty versus commitments to college, jobs, loans, housing, relationships and many other binding connections.
A recent graduate might actually wish to stop the hands on the clock. Or spin them backward, to return to what seemed like simpler times.
If you look backward or forward with too much idealism, it’s basically a “grass is always greener” viewpoint. Every moment, past or future, is layered and complex and special and compromised.
In other instances, we’re wise enough or foolish enough, or at just the right cognitive developmental stage (babies, for instance) to loll around in the moment. Bask in it. Splash in it. Submerge ourselves inside it. Be present, here and now.
So recently, I was tugged into my own past during a lively reminiscence with this same 14-year-old girl about our favorite Disney television comedies. Hannah Montana, to be specific.
I found out, much to my shock, that the television series continued beyond the years I’d watched it. Why was I surprised? But I was. I’d missed some seasons, because we don’t have expanded cable access at home. And I don’t have a reason to watch it anymore.
So where did I originally watch this Disney series? When I spent endless hours at Childrens Hospital with Jessie. That was a surreal slice of life, living inside a climate-controlled atmosphere, unable to feel the touch of wind or sun most of time, shut inside an environment with its own rhythms and traditions and language, unlike anywhere else in the world: time lifted out of any other reality, stretching out from hours and days into months and years.
We spent time meaningfully. We conducted plenty of school work and tutoring, reading and writing. Creative projects with fabric and glue and paper and paints and clay and scissors and every sort of craft material you can imagine. Imaginative therapy with music and play and art and talking and role-playing.
But we also spent recreational time playing competitive video games, board games, reading books or watching hours of movie and television, when Jessie felt especially yucky.
Do I miss living in the hospital? No. Do I wish I could snuggle up next to Jessie in bed, watching her favorite Disney shows … yes.
Though the reality of Jessie’s mortality was always palpable, we couldn’t imagine a time we wouldn’t be able to feel her curl up close, still fitting into our laps at age 9, thin and graceful, long and prickly, moody and sweet. It’s impossible to imagine that you won’t be able to touch, protect, play, argue with and console your child. It’s impossible to imagine the emptiness where arms once encircle, or a weight that won’t press against you any more, or a breath, or a voice, or a giggle, or a brush of her fingers.
We’ll say good-bye again again, in a healthy, natural way when Sarah goes to college in the fall.
But a child’s passing? His or her permanent departure? You can’t imagine that will eventually feel like.
Yet the shadow of it made us pay attention to the time we had with her, and each other, in the moment. In a sense, it focused us. Acted as a lens, and changed how we viewed and measure time. We tried not to take any of it for granted.
Afterward, time changes again. You must grow familiar with her absence hour by hour, day by day, month by month, year by year. Now we measure time, in part, by what came before. And after. For instance, as my conversation with a 14-year-old revealed, there are years punctuated by High School Musical and Hannah Montana. And years without.
Some children will achieve those milestones that my friend’s 14-year-old yearns to reach. Others will never get there.
Yesterday during the PMC, I watched the results of time’s progression: its blessings and its losses. Survivors posed for a “Living Proof” photo, and many of them were once toddlers or elementary school students on treatment for cancer. Now they’re teens and young adults riding to support cancer research. Like Sarah, many members of those families grow up to study medicine of some kind. I also sought out and hugged sweaty panting adults riding in memory of their children. Others, whom I don’t know, rode for siblings, spouses, or parents.
Then there’s Hannah Montana-time. I realize that some parents don’t approve of the Disney channel. Or Hannah Montana. Mostly on principle. It represents some frothy, silly values that don’t gibe with feminism, for instance. It’s sort of like letting little kids play with Barbies. It demeans, in a way, a more intellectual and wholesome value system. There’s merit, of course, to that position.
Yet it doesn’t make me feel guilty or apologetic for enjoying Hannah Montana with Jessie. I have written before about the importance of letting children feel like princesses. Role-playing. Therapeutic play. Externalizing experiences and developing scripts and games and roles around it. The potency of magical thinking and the power of fantasy, dreaming and escaping. (Aside: Hannah Montana was a big hit for little girls of Jessie’s age, in part because they could imagine themselves living a double life as “regular kid” and a “superstar.” The possibility of being either ordinary or fairy-tale … or both at once. And in Jessie’s case, perhaps her wishfulness extended to being healthy, as well as all tossing around all those long blonde tresses and rocking those great wigs and outfits.)
So yes, I appreciate the value of my Hannah Montana-years. But I don’t think I’d turn back time. Nor would I fast-forward it.
Here? Right now? A whole lot of life is happening in our family. Sarah’s last month at home before college. My final few weeks before graduate school. The start of a new season and transformation in our family’s life.
The same is true in most families, for a variety of reasons. Summer versus autumn. Vacation and camps versus school, sports, extracurriculars and work. We’re all in the height of this time of year, but it will come to a close soon enough. We’ll all be in the middle of transitions, and the stress that comes with them.
For now, I’ll just savor right where I am. Sure, maybe I’ll sneak in a new episode of Hannah Montana, in honor of Jessie and childhood and the silly ways we escape difficult realities, and the magic of both childhood and a rich adult fantasy life. (Trust me, hours upon hours of Disney channel didn’t steal Jessie’s ability to use her imagination … or mine.) But mostly I’ll try not to tune out; I’ll pay attention to the experience of my living daughter Sarah, who is letting go of childhood and grabbing onto adulthood, even as I write this journal.